The top 10 Canadian Rock Songs of 1971 continued to feel the legacy of the Woodstock Festival that was held in August 1969. This was especially evident with an Ontario-based rock group known as The Band. After working with icons such as Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the mix of American and Canadian musicians became one of the most popular acts going into the 1970s.
In the meantime, The Guess Who was still riding high as god-like rockers who had flocks of American and Canadian fans following their every move. Burton Cummings was among the top vocalists from Canada that critics and fans couldn’t seem to get enough of. Joni Mitchell was another, as was Neil Young. There was also Terry and Susan Jacks from The Poppy Family, a dynamic duo who managed were still able to bring forth hit music as the 1960s came to an end to make way for the start of a new decade. Another was the Five Man Electrical Band, a new name they adopted for themselves in 1968 after spending five years as The Staccatos.
Stampeding Out of the Blue
1971 was no doubt Joni Mitchell’s year. Her fourth studio album, Blue, came after she broke up with Graham Nash and was involved with James Taylor. It was an intensely spiritual album that deservedly earned its place as one of the greatest recordings of all time. As a person, Mitchell came a long way since her Saskatchewan-based childhood. As a musical artist, she was (and still is) incomparable. Blue was so inspirational to so many popular and upcoming musicians that it helped shape virtually every genre of music clean through the 1970s and beyond. To be frank, every single song on Blue could easily fill the top ten Canadian rock songs of 1971 as there is not one that falls short of spectacular.
Another recording artist that highlighted 1971 was The Stampeders. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, the lineup of Rich Dodson, Kim Berley, and Ronnie King relocated to Toronto, Ontario, before making it big with “Sweet City Woman” and Against the Grain. The 1972 Juno Awards witnessed The Stampeders steal the show as Canada’s top act. They, along with Joni Mitchell, reaped the benefits as more than just Canadian fan favorites. The United States, as well as the rest of the world, fell in love with these recording artists for their brand of rock music. Where The Stampeders meshed some country flair into their songs, Mitchell did this with her folksy performance that became her trademark.
Hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, The Poppy Family was a psychedelic pop group that was officially founded in 1968 by Terry Jacks, Craig McCaw, and Susan Pesklevits. By this time, a young and impressionable Pesklevits married Terry Jacks and a drummer from India, Satwant Singh, was added to the group’s lineup. This is what gave The Poppy Family its tabla drum sound that helped them stand out as one of Canada’s elite rock bands at the time.
With Susan Jacks as the lead vocalist, the group debuted in 1969 with two hit singles from its self-titled debut album. The Poppy Family became international stars that would enable the group to record and release a second album in 1971, titled Poppy Seeds. However, this dynamic duo had to go without Craig McCaw and Satwant Singh as they left the band in 1970 after visiting Osaka, Japan, and its Expo ’70. In 1971, it still worked as the Jacks adopted a more personal approach to their music as performers.
Top 10 Canadian Rock Songs of 1971
#10 – Where Evil Grows (performed by The Poppy Family)
“Where Evil Grows” was the hit single that was released from it as it peaked as high as number six on the Canadian Top Singles Chart. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it was a number forty-five hit. On the Adult Contemporary Songs charts, “Where Evil Grows” peaked at number two in Canada and at number sixteen in the US. The legacy of “Where Evil Grows” continues today as it’s been used in movies and television such as the 2020 Jim Carrey flick, Sonic the Hedgehog.
What made “Where Evil Grows” was the phenomenal opening of the guitar as it marched its way to the harmonic lyrics performed by Terry and Susan Jacks. According to them, “Where Evil Grows” experienced its growth each time they looked at each other as lovers. The lyrics suggested that “evil” was lust, which found a way to mess with the better judgment of both singers. “Where Evil Grows” is a timeless classic that continues to grow as a favorite, especially since a new wave of fans learned of it after 2020.
#9 – Absolutely Right (performed by Five Man Electrical Band)
From 1963 until 1968, the Five Man Electrical Band was originally known as The Staccatos. Hailing from Ottawa, Ontario, Les Emmerson’s talent as a singer-songwriter first led The Staccatos to a recording contract that included sharing a joint album in 1968 with The Guess Who. In 1969, the band changed its name after receiving criticism from the producer it had at the time, Nick Venet. He felt The Staccatos sounded too dated. As fate had it, bass player Brian Rading suggested the Emmerson-written song, “Five Man Electrical Band,” would make the perfect replacement. Right after the name was officially changed, the Five Man Electrical Band debuted its album in 1969.
This was followed up with 1970’s controversial Good-Byes and Butterflies, then 1971’s Coming of Age. The group’s third studio album produced the single, “Absolutely Right,” which became a number three hit on the Canadian Top Singles chart. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number twenty-six. It was also the second time the Five Man Electrical Band experienced a hit in Australia as “Absolutely Right” became a number fifty-nine hit on its chart. As a song, “Absolutely Right” has stood the test of time as a favorite classic often played on radio stations specializing in retro rock music. This was fun to listen to when it was first released and it’s still fun to listen to today.
#8 – Stay Awhile (performed by Bells)
What made “Stay Awhile” a romantic rock classic was the unusual mix of cooing and vocals that made it such a dreamy melody. Written by Ken Tobias, it became a big, RIAA-certified gold hit for the Bells after it was released as a single in 1971. At the time, the Canadian rock group from Montreal, Quebec had the legendary Frank Mills as part of its lineup. He served as a pianist for the group just before he put his name on the map as one of Canada’s most gifted guitarists of all time. On the Canadian Top Singles Chart, “Stay Awhile” became a number-one hit. It peaked as high as number seven on the US Billboard Hot 100.
This beautiful ballad also became a number eight hit on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart. In Australia and New Zealand, the appeal of “Stay Awhile” had the song peak as high as number eleven and number sixteen, respectively. Sharing the lead vocals for this duet were Cliff Edwards and Jackie Ralph. It should be noted here this is not the same Cliff Edwards who was best remembered as Ukulele Ike. This particular Edwards was married to fellow Bells founder, Anne.
Originally, the couple founded the group in 1965 as Five Bells before the name was changed to Bells in 1969. In 1970, Anne opted out to raise the family she and Cliff started while he continued to perform with the band. In 1973, the Bells officially disbanded after Edwards opted to embark on a solo career. The appeal behind “Stay Awhile” was the beautiful, yet humble, approach to a couple’s intimate relationship. For a while, it was a popular song chosen by couples as their first dance at wedding receptions.
#7 – This Flight Tonight (performed by Joni Mitchell)
Before the Scottish-based hard rock band known as Nazareth soared “This Flight Tonight” into one of the most iconic hits of all time, this song was originally Joni Mitchell’s. It was featured on her incredible album, Blue. Released in 1971, her folksy approach shared the regret of leaving a lover behind, along with a desire to go back to him. The combination of her incredible vocals and amazing guitar performance turned “This Flight Tonight” into one of her most emotional performances.
The completely reworked version by Nazareth turned Mitchell’s classic into one of the most powerful hard-rocking tunes that became one of the group’s signature songs as performers. When Mitchell learned of the complete makeover, she admitted she was impressed. Although “This Flight Tonight” was a Joni Mitchell original, she has been known to credit Nazareth with it while in concert. When listening to Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight,” we’re charmed by the beauty of her acoustic guitar performance and gentle vocals. It also demonstrated how influential her music has been, inspiring hard rockers like Nazareth to crank it up according to how they liked it.
#6 – Mexican Lady (performed by Steel River)
Ontario-based Steel River began in 1965 as The Toronto Shotgun, a part-time band playing in the city’s R&B clubs. 1969 witnessed the group change its name and go full-time. Together, the lineup of John Dudgeon as lead singer, guitarists Rob Cockell and Tony Dunning, and keyboardist Bob Forrester. There were also two trimmers for the band, Ray Angrove and Dennis Watson.
After a successful 1970 studio album debut with Weighin’ Heavy and its top single, “Ten Pound Note,” Steel River followed up in 1971 with its second studio album, A Better Road. “Mexican Lady” was the second of two singles released from it that would play a key role for Steel River to embark on a concert tour, opening for Sly & The Smily Stone, Steppenwolf, and Three Dog Night. This Canadian classic was about a romantic relationship with a woman from Mexico as Cockwell, Dunning, and Forrester put this song together.
At the time, the media suggested it was about the mix of drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The rough vocals, combined with the great guitar riffs, and the organ performances led “Mexican Lady” to become a popular favorite among Steel River’s fans. Although the single was a top ten hit on regional music charts belonging to Montreal and Vancouver, it didn’t share the international success its predecessor, “Southbound Train,” did. Although both songs are early 1970s gems, “Mexican Lady” continues to stand out as the popular favorite that has stood the test of time.
#5 – Fast Train (performed by April Wine)
“Fast Train” was the debut single by a Canadian rock band that would ultimately become one of the nation’s all-time favorites. This single by April Wine became a number thirty-eight hit on the Canadian Top Singles Chart, as well as the key factor behind the success of the group’s first studio album. Myles Goodwyn and his bandmates were able to capitalize on that success with one incredible recording after another that turned April Wine into Canadian rock gods. In 1997, “Fast Train” became part of the soundtrack for the Donald Sutherland thriller, Natural Enemy. Although there wasn’t much for lyrics, each word Goodwyn expressed had meaning.
It was a song about a man who left everything he knew for New York City, hoping to make a name for himself. “Fast Train” made reference to a person trying to make the most out of his life, despite all the challenges that came with it. The biggest challenge of them all is the ability to have peace of mind one can live with. Like a “Fast Train,” the human rat race, especially in a big city, continues to move forward like a speeding bullet. Pairing up with Goodwyn’s vocals was the incredible guitar riffs that juiced up this song as a classic still loved by rock music fans today.
#4 – Albert Flasher (performed by The Guess Who)
Written by Burton Cummings, “Albert Flasher” was a single The Guess Who released in 1971 that became a number thirteen hit on the Canadian Top Singles Chart. It also peaked as high as number twenty-nine on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as number twenty-eight in Australia. At the time, “Albert Flasher” was a standalone single before it would be added to the reissue of The Who’s 1971 album, So Long, Bannatyne. The inspiration behind this song came to Cummings after noticing an alert flasher button on the console of a radio.
From there, his imagination ran away with him to come up with “Albert Flasher.” In a way, “Albert Flasher” had much in common with a rising star at the time, UK-based David Bowie. Cummings admitted he felt threatened by the likes of Bowie as the music industry seemed to shift its focus on visual appeal instead of producing quality musical material. Adding extra charm to this incredible song was the boogie-woogie piano performance laid out by Cummings as he happily sang away. As he feverishly tickled the ivories, “Albert Flasher” also had a saloon-style feel to it that could easily spark a listener’s imagination of a classic bar-room scene.
#3 – California (performed by Joni Mitchell)
“California” was a follow-up single that was released after “Carey.” Joni Mitchell’s album, Blue, has become one of the most favored albums of all time, and rightfully so. If there is that one record that’s captured the essence of Mitchell as a person and artist, it’s Blue. “California” was a song that shared Mitchell’s longing to visit the state, despite the fact she felt it contradicted her counterculture position. At the time, she wrote this song while she was in France. The lyrics made reference to her European travels while sharing the desire to head to the sunny American state.
If there was ever an ideal song to use as an advertising campaign to promote tourism, “California” would be it. The guitar performances by James Taylor and Peter Kleinow beautifully paired up with Mitchell’s vocals as the woman continued to blossom as one of the world’s most talented singer-songwriters of all time. The impression “California” made struck a chord with the legendary Bob Dylan, which was evident as he played “California” during an episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour Show that ran from 2006 until 2009.
#2 – Life Is a Carnival (performed by The Band)
1971 marked the year The Band released its fourth studio album, Cahoots. “Life is a Carnival” was a popular single released from it fans may recognize from Bill Murray’s 1996 comedy movie, Larger Than Life. Written by Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Robbie Robertson, it became one of The Band’s signature songs. When it was first released, “Life Is a Carnival” became a number twenty-five hit in Canada and a number seventy-two hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
For The Band at the time, this came as a disappointment as 1970 marked a year when Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manual, and Robbie Robertson were at the top of their game as a Canadian-American rock band. The Band credits its roots to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and Woodstock, New York, USA. The wall behind New Yorker Levon Helm’s grave in Woodstock features musical notations for this song imprinted on it.
From 1957 until 1964, The Band was originally known as The Hawks. Their rise to fame began with American turned Canadian, Ronnie Hawkins. In 1965, the lineup would be hired by another musical legend, Bob Dylan. After he was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1966, The Band (still referred to as Hawks at the time) went back to Ontario before they were invited in 1967 to meet Dylan at Woodstock. While there, Danko, Hudson, and Manuel rented a large pink house that was fondly dubbed “Big Pink.” Between Dylan’s home and the pink house, this team-up recorded a series of demo songs that would later lead to the 1975 release of The Basement Tapes.
This experience with Dylan gave the bandmates cause to drop The Hawks as its name in favor of something they felt truly defined them. By this time, Helm had returned to the lineup and The Band became the group’s new name. In 1968, The Band made its debut with Music from Big Pink. The influence of Bob Dylan can be heard in what became the group’s most critically acclaimed album. It was enough to earn a spot at the infamous Woodstock Festival that was held in August 1969. Although they did perform, there were legal issues involved that prevented their performance to be caught on camera. Despite this, The Band’s popularity still continued to spike which would lead to 1969’s The Band and 1970’s Stage Fright as two more albums that would keep this group on top of the world as rock gods.
Going into Cahoots, “Life Is a Carnival” was a song that reflected the roller coaster ride of success with all its ups, downs, twists, and turns. Robertson’s lyrical performance about the fast-paced street life was beautifully combined with the funky rhythm laid out by Dano, Helm, and Allen Toussaint. Toussaint was credited for adding the festive feel to “Life Is a Carnival” that gave it so much charm. When this song was released in 1971, this new musical approach seemed to take the radio stations off guard, as well as the fans. As time moved on, “Life Is a Carnival” finally began to receive the proper recognition it deserved. The honesty behind the lyrics, combined with the passion poured into this classic, rightfully placed “Life Is a Carnival” as a genuine rock classic that’s just as enjoyable to listen to today as it was when it was first released.
#1 – Sweet City Woman (performed by The Stampeders)
“Sweet City Woman” was a song recorded and released by The Stampeders. Originally hailing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, the band was first named the Rebounds by Rich Dodson and his bandmates at the time in 1964. With drummer Kim Berly part of the original lineup, the group underwent a name change in 1965 to honor their home city’s football team. Before moving to Toronto, Ontario, in 1966, Ronnie King replaced Len Roemer on bass. Upon moving east, The Stampeders started out as a five-man band. In 1968, it was downsized to the trio Canadian fans have come to know and love as one of the most popular rock groups during the first half of the 1970s.
In 1971, The Stampeders debuted with Against the Grain and its prized single, “Sweet City Woman.” Written by Dodson, this amazing song did more than dominate the Canadian Top Singles Chart. It earned him a personal win as Best Songwriter during the 1972 Juno Awards Ceremony. For The Stampeders as a group, “Sweet City Woman” earned them Junos for Best Group and Best Produced Single. Producer Mel Shaw also won a Juno for his role in what became the band’s crowning achievement.
One of the highlights of “Sweet City Woman” was the banjo performance, which added a country kick to a song that also referenced the musical instrument as Dodson sang the lyrics. The popularity of this single also earned The Stampeders recognition in the United States as the single peaked as high as number eight on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was also favored enough to become a number thirty-two hit in Australia. Because of the country charm that fused its way into this awesome song, “Sweet City Woman” also topped the Canadian RPM Country Tracks chart.
On the Adult Contemporary Songs charts, it peaked as high as number one in Canada and at number five in the US. Since its release, “Sweet City Woman” has become a favorite song to cover by many artists between the genres of country and rock. Johnny Carver did this in 1977 as a country hit, as did Tompall & the Glaser Brothers in 1980. This song was also used in music and television, including Adam Sandler’s 2000 comedy, Little Nicky.
The banjo featured in “Sweet City Woman” wasn’t originally intended to be recorded with the song. While still living in a basement apartment in Toronto, Dobson rented the instrument while he was on his way to the recording studio. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision that wound up playing a pivotal role in the song’s success. The Stampeders also favored the idea of using a tuba for “Sweet City Woman.” This was met was opposition by the recording label The Stampeders were signed to at the time.
Quality Records felt the use of the tuba would reduce the quality of “Sweet City Woman” as hit potential. However, Dobson and his bandmates insisted the tuba stays, along with the use of the banjo. As soon as the song was first heard on the radio, its popularity spread across the Canadian nation like wildfire. From there, “Sweet City Woman” also became a popular hit in the United States. Even today, “Sweet City Woman” remains a favorite as radio stations featuring classic rock still play this song often. For Dobson, the song was his way of paying homage to the city of Toronto, as well as the women he met while living there.
Top 10 Canadian Rock Songs of 1971 article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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